Winning back our humanity

Altogether, I've written about 41,000 words (twice the length of my master's thesis). I am doing what I said I wouldn't do: trying to win back my humanity in a debate contest. I will never win that contest, because it's rigged: it's not about who can present the most convincing argument. Rather, it's about power: social power, like the power to derail discussions by accusing your interlocutor of rudeness, and having your audience listen to and believe you instead of them; the power to control the terms of discourse and be listened to and believed when you say what things are important to talk about. It's not about logic or facts.

If the debate that I'm entering by writing this post were about logic and facts, we wouldn't be talking at all. Plenty has already been written about just how verbal attacks on people in marginalized groups make those people feel unwelcome. Many of you who are reading this know that from personal experience, or have learned it from other people by reading or listening. I'm writing for everybody else: for the people who have the privilege to not need to know what exclusion is and what it feels like. To be honest, I don't feel very hopeful that I'm going to make any such people more likely to listen and learn in the future. By writing this, I'm not going to change that they have the privilege to not need to know. And such people would still have the ability to educate themselves, even if I hadn't spent dozens of hours trying to educate them by writing this piece. This isn't my job, but I choose to do it out of possibly-irrational hope that maybe one person will read this and later decide to listen to lived experience instead of speaking from authority.

Negative and positive peace

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about a person "who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom", he was talking about white liberals from the Northern US who claimed to support civil rights for Black Americans, but insisted that Black people were using the wrong set of tactics (and were never quite clear on what acceptable tactics would look like). But when I read the Code of Conduct discussions, I heard echoes of the people who King confronted. No one admitted to being a homophobe; even people like Gerv who explicitly support measures that encode inequality between heterosexual people and queer people into law claim not to hate or dislike queer people.

Over and over, I saw calls to simply abandon the discussion, stop talking about what happened with Planet Mozilla because it wasn't important; calls which could only be based in heterosexual superiority, as many queer people and their allies did not feel the discussion should be abandoned, and would not experience a positive peace -- would not feel that justice was at work -- if the issue was abandoned. Some Mozillans claimed to agree with the goal (which, I suppose, they see as absence of explicitly hostile words or violence aimed at queer people for being queer, and nothing more than that), but oppose the methods: the methods being to encourage people to reflect about the consequences of their speech and actions. Some Mozillans claimed to be able to set the timetable for our freedom: that is to say, there was repeated insistence that because heterosexual superiority is still a mainstream political view in at least some parts of the world, that view must be something that we allow Mozillans to use the Planet Mozilla megaphone in order to promote. To say that Mozilla mustn't aspire beyond the prejudices of the day is something that I can only see as paternalistic timetable-setting.

I find the "wait for change" response to be especially paternalistic given the actions of companies like Google, which have taken very clear stands in favor of universal marriage. In fact, when I started working on this essay, I would have said that obviously, Mozilla shouldn't take a stand on universal marriage, as it's not within the scope of political issues that the Mozilla Foundation addresses. Now, I'm not so sure. More recently, I read about Google's "Legalise Love" campaign and how, for Google, advocating for LGBT rights is an essential part of the company's functioning: they want to make sure that "all of our employees have the same inclusive experience outside of the office as they do at work". This is what it looks like to really treat LGBT employees as equal. While it's true that Mozilla doesn't have the same amount of resources that a large company like Google does, and it especially wouldn't be feasible for Mozilla to support other non-profits copiously, the existence of "Legalise Love" does challenge the idea that a corporation has to refrain from taking a stand on social issues.

Closets, freedom, liberation, and the Open Web

Those of us who would like to dismantle structural homophobia face a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. One way to dismantle homophobia is to show heterosexual people that queer people are their friends, neighbors and colleagues. This would show heterosexual people that they depend on us, and that when they hurt us, they hurt themselves. But the reality is that many people cannot be out as queer at work. Some people just don't want to be, and they shouldn't feel that they have to be a martyr for the cause if they prefer to have privacy about their sexuality. Some people want to be out -- in order to educate others or just to have the freedom of being who they are -- but even these people can't always be out. The result is that many queer people are invisible on the job, and their accomplishments all get credited to Team Heterosexual, because everyone is assumed to be heterosexual unless they say otherwise. And consequently, there is less awareness than there might be of all that queer people do to keep society running, mostly for the benefit of heterosexuals. Systematic heterosexism and homophobia are what reinforce this invisiblity and make it unsafe for many people to come out as queer. Again, no one should have to come out, and in an ideal world, no one would -- because there would be no default assumption of heterosexuality in the first place.

If you're wondering just how systematic homophobia has these effects, I'll have to refer you outside the scope of this post, to the extensive literature on gender and sexual minority members' experiences. If it's not clear at this point, I'm not sure what else I could say to make it clear.

Because it's so challenging to make the world a safer place to be out as queer, I appreciate knowing about people in my field who are or were out as queer. A while back I wrote a post I titled "The Silicon Closet", about my dismay at not learning until after his death that the pioneering programming language researcher Peter Landin was, like me, an out bisexual man and a Quaker (and that he was also a queer rights activist who was once arrested at a protest); and that another influential programming language theory researcher, Christopher Strachey, was gay. Everybody knows about the contributions of Alan Turing. Not everyone thinks about how Turing was essentially murdered by the British government by means of exogeneously imposed gender dysphoria. And not everyone thinks about how to oppose universal marriage is to stand with the same forces that murdered him and would murder another person like him if he, she, they, or ze were alive and contributing today. And that's why it matters whether we can be out as queer: it's the difference between life and death, and even if you don't care about that, it can be the difference between computers and no computers. I'm not mentioning any queer women pioneers in this paragraph, because I don't know of any... but given the essential and constantly dismissed role that women played in the very early days of computing, as well as the quiet contributors who were and are women (particularly in my field, programming languages, where women are overrepresented among people who've had an impact while underrepresented at any conference I've attended), I don't doubt that there have been some, and we just don't know their names. There are a number of notable trans women to list as well, though as far as I know, not a single (out) trans man.

And because I'd like to make the world a safer place in which to be queer, I don't appreciate attempts to keep us in the closet, which is the effect that a hostile environment for queer people -- one where it's not just the case that a few people say homophobic things, but where a lot of people act like that's perfectly okay -- has. Who would want to be out as queer in an environment where it's okay to demean and belittle queer people?

So while this may seem like a stretch, I think that smashing the closets that queer people are placed in non-consensually does relate to the Mozilla mission, which is supposed to be about openness. It matters how the tech community deals with systematic oppression because at least right now, we're on top; we matter. And because information is power and knowledge is power. And because despite the looks of it, in a world where access to technology is now required in order to be in the center rather than the margin, the kinds of intellectual freedom that the Internet-civil-liberties class are always on about (copyright and patent reform, encryption, network neutrality) are inseparable from basic equality and justice. And finally, because if freedom is just for some people, it's contingent. And freedom that's contingent isn't really freedom at all.

I also hope that in developing procedures and guidelines, we strive for acceptance, rather than tolerance, because as a friend likes to say, "Tolerance means they still hate you."


I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

For me, this set of essays isn't about imposing a particular solution. It's a request to think harder than the level of thought than I saw displayed on mozilla.governance and in some people's blog posts and comments. I know that people who can program computers, who can manage teams, who can document difficult technical concepts clearly, who can develop test cases, who can analyze security problems, and do all the other tasks that are necessary for an open-source project are good enough at thinking to understand how others feel. I also know that it's not about whether people are smart enough to do it, but whether they see it as worth their while. So that takes me back to one of my first points, that I can't argue my way into full humanity because there is no way for me to bootstrap out of partial or absent humanity. I know that people change sometimes, but if I knew how to change them, I'd be doing that right now.

"Martin's Law" says, "If you never used software written by dickheads, your disk would be very empty indeed." This may well be true, but I'm more interested in asking what would have happened if people had chosen not to be dickheads, or if people who engaged in anti-social behavior were shunned. I see no reason to think that asking people to be respectful -- and refusing to collaborate with those who can't or won't be respectful -- will lower our collective productivity. It may well mean the opposite. The important question is not what the assholes will do with their time instead, but who is being excluded. When we finally encourage the assholes to leave, and those who have been historically marginalized are finally able to participate, won't that improve the quality of our body of work? I can't say for sure that the answer is "yes", of course, but it seems to me that the only way to say "no" is to act from a baseline assumption that women, and queer people, and trans people, and people of color, and disabled people just aren't as good (on the whole) at writing software as heterosexual cis able-bodied white men are. And I just don't see any reason for that assumption other than a desire to raise one's own status at the expense of others.

If there's one thing I'd like you to take away from this set of essays, it's that inclusion doesn't happen on its own; it doesn't happen naturally just because everyone believes they have good intentions. It requires conscious, active effort, part of which involves willingness to admit mistakes and the ability to listen to people that you may previously have treated as inferior to yourself. Contrary to the "marketplace of ideas" model that you may have learned as a child, free speech in the absence of community norms and standards does not lead to the best ideas "winning", whatever it means to win. When a community declines to set norms (not to be confused with whether or not a government exercises prior restraint on speech), the best ideas don't "win"; rather, the people with the (metaphorically) loudest voices win and existing social power imbalances become stronger. In that scenario, might makes right. A community can decide to set norms because it believes that all people have something of value to say, not just those who have the social power to exclude others through their speech.

I believe that when I hold people accountable, it's an act of love. I wouldn't do it unless I expected more from them. At bottom, I'm a pretty optimistic person and I expect a lot from people, including myself. That means I'm disappointed a lot, including in myself. When I hold someone accountable, it's because I believe they are capable of doing better, which is why it distresses and confuses me so much when people react with defensiveness rather than with a sincere desire to do better. I'm writing this essay out of love and grief, a love that often looks like anger when it shows its public face.

Back to the beginning
Last modified: Wed Sep 5 00:39:32 PDT 2012